Hey DOT, Let's Get it Together
As advocates with a positive vision, T.A. treads a fine line between not pushing hard enough and pushing so hard that public officials we depend on are alienated and antagonized. We make every effort to be fair, and praise what we consider progress. We strive to inspire and educate the public and its representatives about a green transportation future in which cycling, walking and public transit make the city a better place to live. To this end, we've succeeded in enthusing the public about the potential of traffic calming. This interest is reflected in the strong support from the Mayor, City Council and all five borough presidents for the NYC traffic calming law. Our hope was that 8passage of the law would help generate new momentum for pedestrian and cycling improvements.
What a surprise that scarcely a month after the new law passed, Wilbur Chapman, Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, stood before City Council and asserted that speed humps - the mainstay of the city's traffic calming program - do not work and would no longer be installed. It took a day for City Hall to publicly overrule Chapman via a Daily News editorial. Later in November, the Staten Island Advance editorialized that DOT's policy on speed humps was mysterious to community boards and city councilmembers alike. The Advance editors also noted city councilmember Stephen Fiala's scathing observation that the agency's confusion over speed humps might be "symptomatic of a larger problem..." with "its general competence and intentions."
Fialla and the Advance are not alone in their concerns. Back in 1996, T.A. mobilized a coalition of business and transportation leaders to save the DOT from being converted into a "Department of Infrastructure Maintenance." T.A.'s concern was that without one agency charged with making and carrying out transportation policy, bike and ped issues would fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Thus it is especially disappointing that the agency we fought to save, the DOT, is not getting the job done. Though flush with Federal money, it lacks a coherent - or any apparent - bike, ped or traffic calming plan. Project after project is being delayed or muddled - including those for marquee locations like Times Square and Herald Square. While the police swiftly install permanent steel pedestrian barricades, DOT is unable to widen sidewalks. The agency seems incapable of spending Federal funds for bicycle improvements, yet cyclists are desperate for secure parking and new lanes. Amazingly, given its inability to implement its own bike projects, DOT still has time to reject innovative cycling projects proposed by the Department of City Planning. More broadly, the agency does not know how to deal with the public. It routinely ignores vociferous community complaints about unsafe conditions and traffic for years. Then, when a community explodes, the agency acts grudgingly and often without notice.
T.A. would much rather praise DOT for its accomplishments than criticize it. But the lack of progress - and even backward movement - on issues of street safety have become so pronounced that they are now highlighted on newspaper editorial pages. T.A. will always have special frustrations with the speed with which DOT gets things done. But the concerns raised here transcend that. City Hall must instruct the DOT to develop a cogent traffic calming policy, communicate it clearly to the public and speed the building of pedestrian and cycling projects. The alternative is a permanent black eye for a mayor who prides himself on getting things done and is facing an election year.